Let’s start this thing off with some real talk. These have not been a particularly great playoffs. That Heat/Raptors series has left even the most loyal hoopheads with a bit of a hangover. The Cavaliers have hit the “easy” button in the past couple of weeks, making the Eastern Conference seem like a insignificant stepping stone on the way to their second straight finals appearance. In the west we have had to constantly worry about the health of the game’s biggest star, but at least there have been a couple of entertaining series. The Spurs were everybody’s contrarian pick to knock the Warriors off their pedestal, but OKC played spoiler to the would-be spoilers. We also got a glimpse of what could be wonderful future rivalry in Golden State and Portland. These playoffs haven’t been as bad as say, Batman vs Superman. There have been some redeemable moments, but a lot of it has been forgettable, so maybe a better comparison would be The Dark Knight Rises.
Now here we are, ready and raring to see a couple of knock-down, drag-out fights in the Conference Finals. Unfortunately we are more than likely going to see at least one of these series end in either a sweep or gentleman’s sweep, and there is plenty of potential for both of these series landing on the shorter end. This is price we pay for having two historically great teams in different conferences. The Warriors just proved through the last 93 games that no one in the league can matchup with them when they are healthy, and the Cavs have been hitting three’s at rate we’ve never seen in the league before. Both teams have the feel of two trains heading towards each other at full speed, we know they are going to eventually collide, the question is when.
So, can either the Thunder or Raptors play spoiler? Let’s get the Raptors out of the way first. It’s great to see Kyle Lowry work his way out of that nasty slump before this series. He scored 35 points in the Raptors game seven win over the Heat and 36 in game six. He is taking threes with confidence, making 8-12 from range in the last two games. Toronto desperately needs their All-Stars to play well in this series. They have to find a way to punish Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in pick and rolls to the point where Cleveland is left with no other option than to bench either of them for a better defender. The best the Raptors can do is create enough chaos that Cleveland makes some mistakes in their rotations. Tyronn Lue has shown in the past couple of weeks that he clearly knows what he is doing, but he is still a rookie coach with only a couple of months of experience.
Here’s the thing about this series that can’t be ignored, LeBron James has yet to break much of a sweat in these playoffs. He’s only averaging 38 minutes a game, which is good for second fewest in his career. When he is on the court he has been more than happy to be a facilitator, letting Kyrie and Kevin carry much of the load on offense. I’ve talked before about how effective James has been when he starts the second and fourth quarters with the second unit. The Raptors simply do not have the depth to keep up with a Cleveland team that always has one All NBA caliber player on the court. DeMarre Carroll is the one player on Toronto’s roster that is capable of defending LeBron effectively. If I’m Dwane Casey I put him on the floor whenever James is out there. The more you play Carroll however, the less minutes DeMar DeRozan sees, and the Raptors are going to need DeRozan points to even stand a chance of keeping up with the Cavs.
The only spot in which Toronto has a positional advantage is at point guard. The combination of Kyle Lowry and Corey Joseph will go a long way towards bottling up Kyrie Irving. I can see both players getting minutes together with CoJo getting defensive duties on Irving, leaving Lowry free to do as much damage as he can on offense. With Jonas Valanciunas missing at least one game with a sprained ankle the Drakes will have to play small ball, which unfortunately plays right into the hands of Cleveland, who are lethal when they are able to play Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love together. Toronto is going to have a hard time keeping Cleveland off of the offensive glass as well as protecting the rim. The Raptors have two not-so-great options in playing this Cavs team. They can either lean heavy into their defensive lineup that features Joseph and Carroll to the exclusion of DeRozan and hope that they can somehow makeup for the lost points, or they can try to score enough with their two All Stars to force Cleveland to break up their big three. I don’t think either strategy is going to be effective, and this series probably ends in five games or less.
Ok. Let’s get to the more interesting series in these Conference Finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder gritted and rebounded there way past the San Antonio Spurs to get here. There best chance to win this series is to play Adams, Kanter and Ibaka heavy minutes and hope to bully the champs in the post whenever possible. Both Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green are nursing injuries, expect to see a lot of Festus Ezeli in this series. Ezeli has had some good moments in these playoffs, but he lacks the passing ability of Bogut and the versatility of Green.
The problem with the Thunder playing big is that they are left with a mismatch on any pick and roll. The question is whether or not they can hold it together on defense enough to exploit their advantage on the offensive glass. Enes Kanter has been one of the worst defenders in the league when it comes to the pick and roll, and the Warriors will ruthlessly exploit that. The marquee matchup of this series is Steph Curry against Russell Westbrook, but the real match-ups to watch out for are the Thunder’s bigs against the Warrior’s guards coming off of switches. If the bigs for OKC can hang in there against the small lineups of Golden State then we may have ourselves a series. If they can not, and Coach Donovan is forced to play smaller lineups, they lose the one (pardon the pun) big advantage they have.
There’s no doubt that Kevin Durant will get his in this series. He’s had monster numbers against the Warriors all year (36 points, 53% shooting, 48% three point shooting). His play against the Spurs was enough to completely throw off the best defense in the league, and there are not many players in the league who can guard KD as well as Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio gambled on putting their best defender on Westbrook in hopes that Durant alone would not be enough to win the series – it didn’t work out so well. If the Warriors chose to play their death lineup it will be Andre Iguodala tasked with slowing down Durant. This makes me wonder how much we’ll see out of Harrison Barnes in the series, and if Iguodala can contribute enough on offense to counter what they are giving up in size.
Golden State has the luxury of playing Klay Thomspon on Westbrook throughout the series, freeing up Steph to roam around on defense. If the Thunder chose to play Andre Robertson big minutes it allows the Warriors to basically play 4-on-5 on defense. If they play Ibaka with Robertson it turns into 3-on-5. When OKC plays Dion Waiters they risk getting torched by whoever he is forced to guard. This is the conumdrum the Thunder find themselves in. They have answers to some of problems the Warriors pose, but not for all the problems at all times. Beating the champs is like solving a algebraic equation when all you know is long division.
The Thunder are going to try to play big, rough up Steph as much as possible and hope that Kevin Durant’s offense along with a onslaught of offensive rebounds will be just enough to knock off the Warriors. Golden State will counter by making the Thunder’s bigs navigate a maze of pick and rolls, forcing them to have to guard Klay, Steph, and the rest of their three point shooting death squad in open space. For all of the punches that I think Westbrook and Durant will land in this series, the Warriors are a younger, more adaptable team than the Spurs. This is a title fight that Golden Sate can win in the early or late rounds, but damn if it won’t be fun to watch all of these stars throwing haymakers.